Sonja Hegasy, Staat, Öffentlichkeit und Zivilgesellschaft in Marokko. Die Potentiale der sozio-kulturellen Opposition, Politik, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft des Vorderen Orients (Hamburg: Deutsches Orient-Institut, 1997). Pp. 268.

Reviewed by Armando Salvatore, Institute of Social Sciences, Humboldt University, Berlin

In: International Journal of Middle East Studies IJMES 31 (1999) 4, 689-692.


As the social theorist Jeff Weintraub has put it, the new wave of fascination with "civil society" dating back to the democratic transformations in Eastern Europe has produced a cloudy conceptual discussion with only one element of substantial agreement: that civil society is a good thing indeed. It is not surprising that this notion, well established in moral philosophy and social theory since the Enlightenment, has been cannibalized by social scientists in search of an ecumenical and inclusivist paradigm that can pacify modernization hard-liners and skeptics within Middle East studies.

The entry point of Hegasy’s work is this hazy debate on civil society. Her aim is to show the rise of civil society in Morocco during the 1990s and to access its democratic potential vis-à-vis the persistence of the authoritarian structures of state and royal house. Hegasy spells out the paradigm of civil society that she uses. It is extracted from the experience of German new social movements (notably feminist, ecologist, and civil rights) which have been struggling since the 1970s for a cultural hegemony of democratic values to be enforced via political education, in a sort of Kulturkampf against the residual authoritarian shell of the German polity (p. 37).

Though conscious of the dangers of undue projections as well as of the structural differences between Western "models" and Arab societies, Hegasy’s heuristic design carries the imprint of the idea of an articulated social movement autonomous from the state, and even indifferent to political domination. Its agenda is to reform society through training citizens to be conscious of their rights, and so democratize the political values that uphold the social fabric. Within this scenario of a society reforming itself, middle-class-based initiatives are formed, which appropriate new media and spin networks of civic education and mobilization in order to disseminate values of social responsibility and promote an anti-authoritarian personality. A part of one chapter presents several such cells of a civil society in formation: seventeen units, ranging from womens‘ groups to human-rights associations, passing through youth initiatives, and ending with the Moroccan section of Transparency International, which the author herself helped to found in 1995. The description is slim, impressionistic, and quite irregular in its reference to sources (pp.141-79).

That this galaxy of initiatives constitutes a "socio-cultural opposition" (the term into which Hegasy dilutes "civil society" at the passage from the theoretical to the empirical part of the work) is shown by two more densely argued chapters focusing on two champions of Moroccan civil society: the philosopher Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri and the social analyst Fatima Mernissi. These two leading personalities provide civil society with ideological coherence (al-Jabiri) and a strategic focus (Mernissi). This is the most interesting part of the work in that it raises — in a dialogue with the two Moroccan intellectuals — the question of the extent to which the socio-cultural opposition represents an articulation of democratic values alternative not only to the Moroccan state but also to the West. By giving the word to Al-Jabiri and Mernissi the author bravely escapes the odd question of whether civil society specifically is Western or not, and demonstrates that the contradictions of civil society, being at the same time an analytical tool and a social project, are reflected in the discourse of these two stars. While agreeing that the goal of the movement is empowering women and men to promote a vast array of civil, political, and human rights, al-Jabiri and Mernissi accept the multiple implications of "civil society" with strong reservations. They are conscious of its appeal to Western public opinion (and donors), but they also fear that an exaggerated emphasis on civil society would be detrimental to their images as the heroes of an "authentic" Moroccan (and Islamic) approach to democracy.

Hegasy helps the reader to understand the ideological quandaries and the strategic dilemmas faced by al-Jabiri and Mernissi when they deal with a concept of civil society constructed more for easy listening than for analysis. The disc jockeys here are Western social scientists. This concept brackets out the nature of "pre-political" ties of interest and solidarity, including the civil-contractual tenor of "traditional" arrangements. Hegasy flies over these conceptual hurdles and delivers the view of an harmonic coordination between oppositional associations, new media, and intellectuals who appear "organic" almost by default. A simple Gramscian view of civil society endures in Hegasy’s narration of the several virtues and the few faults of an intellectual project of educating a civic vanguard fostering legal consciousness and self-help against the abuse of family and state structures. Hegasy provides us with an excellent example of this project through the film director Muhammad Abdarrahman Tazi, who adapts the medium of the French colonial documentary film for pushing through this educational-civilizing agenda (pp. 124-26).

Though definitely an integral part of the discourse on the socio-cultural opposition in Morocco, the use of civil society as an "authentic" tool of analysis is not guaranteed. However entangled in this dazzling game — where civil society is reflected back and forth between Western historic experiences and the predicament of Arab societies — it appears that Mernissi, al-Jabiri, and their allies have succeeded in reading through the conditions of Moroccan society and set up a vibrant but realistic project of social transformation — and not as mere cronies of global civil society.

Yet the happy tale of civil society and its manifest destiny resists in Hegasy’s book the contradictions spelled out by the two leaders and makes the state appear as an authoritarian residue still in control but with no project of its own. The state matters only as the main variable that civil society has to cope with; the latter has to protect itself from the intrusion and the repression of the former and attempt to extract as much benevolence as possible from the state’s more open instances.

As synonymous with socio-cultural opposition to an authoritarian, astute, but unreformable state (gravitating to the traditionalist kernel of the royal house, or makhzen), civil society is not engaged in a dialectical relationship with this state, aiming to regulate civil life and to work out strategies of socio-economic development. Thus, the notion of civil society loses analytical power, and its use for analysis ushers in a sterile (and implausible) juxtaposition of two entities — each with a compact rationality of its own — combating, manipulating, and sometimes flattening each other. One is left with the question of the impact of civil society on the makhzen and state bureaucracy, and, from another perspective, of the extent to which a charismatic power of networking and arbitration, and the primacy of personal ties over regulation, are essential to the functioning of civil society.

Hidden is the question of whether a practically oriented rationality operates on both sides, and possibly creates spaces (however fragile) of communication and compromise that have more than a tactical significance. The formation of a left-centered government in 1998 (subsequent to the publication of the book), which also includes some representatives of the Islamist associational spectrum, can be explained only by the pre-existence of such spaces of communication. It is not surprising that by collapsing the notion of civil society into the tautological notion of an emancipating "democratic personality" Hegasy avoids dealing with the Islamist phenomenon, which is a powerful and growing portion of associational life in Morocco. We see Islamic groups placed within the camp of the enemies of Hegasy’s civil society, on the allegation that they impersonate a "dogmatic world view," are confined to "sacral thought," and allow no differences of opinion or behavior. Such statements are not sustained by sociological evidence; they are, rather, derived from a view of traditional Islamic textual closure that the author has probably taken from one of her heroes, the philosopher al-Jabiri.

A possible way out of the impasse created by this self-imposed dichotomy would have been to keep to the promise of the book’s title and deal with the public sphere as an intermediate space between the state and civil society. A thorough analysis of media communication would have helped to explain the combination of democratic exercise and attempts at manipulation, of freedom of expression and different forms and degrees of censorship and self-censorship that characterize public spheres even in Western societies endowed with well-functioning representative systems. Hegasy’s short reconstruction of three public contests of crucial import for all of Moroccan society (the reform of the personal-status law; the opposition to the Allies’ war against Iraq; and "Tabit-gate," the scandal of a police officer who raped 1,500 women) represents the most convincing example of the way the socio-cultural opposition exerts an influence on society at large. Unfortunately, this interesting approach of testing the influence of the socio-cultural opposition within public-sphere dynamics is limited in the book (cha. 5, pp. 189-205).

This boldly conceived book is an encouragement to insist on the path of analysis of new developments in the civic and public structures of Arab societies, but also a warning against short-cut conceptualizations of these processes. The short-cut is in a triple movement that is well epitomized by this book: 1) the Western observer looks for civil society as a force against the authoritarian state in a non-Western environment; 2) he or she artificially multiplies the appeal of the idea of civil society, which thereby becomes a powerful, but not necessarily legitimate, slogan for local associations and initiatives which depend heavily on Western financial support; and 3) the Western observer looks back on these developments and sees in the discursive use of "civil society" the proof of his or her assumptions about the existence of civil society. In this way, the rigid dichotomy of modernity versus tradition (exactly in iron cage that Hegasy’s two protagonists wish to evade) becomes a case of the dog biting its own tail. This adds to the conceptual "rarefaction" lamented by Abdellah Hammoudi (Master and Disciple, University of Chicago Press, 1997) as the modality of operation of the symbolic violence exerted by authoritarianism. The opinion of an (unnamed) judge in Casablanca reported by Mernissi and quotes by Hegasy (p. 135) reveals the communicative backlash between "the West and the rest": "Civil society is chaos itself because the frontier between private and public spaces vanishes. If women cross the line to the public space and start speaking as if their opinion matters, it is the end of the hudud, the sacred boundaries of authority. If women do not obey authority, no one will. As a judge, I call that chaos; in the West, they call it civil society" (p. 135).